There have been a few postings about this route so I thought I would share some up to date information based on my recent experience. Some parts may be more detailed than others depending on how many notes I made but hopefully this will help …...
I travelled in this order - Yangon to Mawlamyine by train - on to Hpa an by boat - and then by road: Golden Rock - Bago - Yangon. We met others who went Yangon - Golden Rock – Mawlamyine - Hpa an - (Bago) - Yangon which would also work fine if you're juggling your days to fit in the boat trip. The train from Yangon to Mawlamyine makes a stop at Kyaikhto so it's also possible to experience the train by doing it this way.
Train from Yangon to Malawmiyne
There are 3 trains daily departing at 7.15am, 7.30pm and 9pm and taking approximately 9 hours (from what I could establish the overnight trains are seats only, not sleepers). The price for 'Upper Class' was $14 ($16 for the 9pm train). 'Ordinary Class' is also available but 10 hours on a hard wooden seat didn't appeal and so we never managed to establish whether we would have been able to buy a ticket for this class (I assume so as we were able to travel ordinary class on latter journeys). 'First Class' Train tickets must be paid for in US$ and you need to show your passport; if you're booking your seat on the day tickets can be bought from the 'same day travel' tickets booths at the station but advance bookings (up to 3 days prior) need to be bought from the Railway Ticket Booking Office which is on the opposite side of the tracks to the station and reached via the road that runs parallel to the lines.
The 7.15am train come roller coaster left bang on time and arrived at 5.30pm, passing through Bago at 9.10am and Khaityo 12.10 where it stopped for around 15/20 minutes and 2.50pm at Thaton. Trains are open-widowed, rattling, bumpy affairs; lively with vendors selling snacks and drinks. The cushioned seats used to recline once upon a time but are now restricted to whichever angle they have become stuck in. It was a fun journey, traditional train travel as it should be, passing some attractive scenery along the way. It cost 2,000 kyat for a tuk tuk between 4 people from the train station to the town; too far to walk.
An attractive town set on the river (which always adds to a towns appeal) with some colonial style buildings. With some wandering around the town and market combined with exploration of the surrounding area it's easy to spend 3 nights here. It's easy to take local transport to Nwa-la bo pagoda and the "Big Buddha" and Ogre Island is a $1 ferry ride away, although it's probably easier to take a guide for the day ($5 per person) as you need transport on the island.
Breeze Rest House
Tel: 057-21450, 09 8701180
$20 double/$15 single a/c and private bathroom
$12 double/$6 single fan and shared bathroom
Includes breakfast with a $1 per person reduction for not taking breakfast.
A converted traditional old house; the front part of the wooden house is mostly divided into tiny windowless rooms and at the back a concrete extension has been built to house slightly larger and more solid but still windowless rooms. The 7 rooms at the back are reserved for foreigners - 2 rooms have private bathrooms and a/c and the others use shared bathrooms (2 western style bathrooms with hot water for which you'll be issued a key and a few "local" bathrooms); when these rooms are full the overflow more to the less sound proofed wooden rooms (smaller and noisier but with more charm than the concrete tiled rooms). The "spacious rooms at the front" recommended by Lonely Planet have now mostly been converted to family accommodation and now there are only 2 - one small but cute single with the advantage of 2 windows (shared bathroom - $7) and a huge room with 2 small double beds, private bathroom and 9 (count 'em, 9) windows! I didn't count them but took the owners word for it ($25 for double occupancy).
If you're after something a bit more "flashpacker", check out either the Cinderella Hotel or the Sandalwood where good doubles go for around $25 and represent much better value than the doubles with en suite at Breeze's.
Boat to Hpa an
The public ferry between Malawmiyne and Hpa an is no longer running (as of around October 2011) - cheaper and faster road travel means there is no longer the demand.
A private charter organised by Breeze's is 70,000 kyat based on a minimum of 10 people with a minimum fare of 7,000 per person (plus 500 for transport to the jetty). They make lists of who is interested in departing on what day; as LP still print that the ferry operates on a Monday and Friday these are probably the best days to aim for as other travellers will more than likely be doing the same thing. The boat was a large wooden long-tail style boat - there were 13 on our boat and there was plenty of space. I was told the maximum number was 15 but I suspect they'd push it above that if they had the demand. It should also be possible to arrange a charter directly at the jetty but the price I was quoted (without entering negotiations) was 55,000 for a smaller boat so unless you already have your own small group it doesn't help economically.
We departed at 8am and took just over 4 hours (we had been told the boat would stop for half an hour en route but this clearly wasn't part of the boatman’s plans). It was a scenic journey but as I subsequently concluded after further boat trips in the country, a big part of the charm of river travel in Burma comes with travelling on public ferrys which sadly seem to be dying out.
Transport from Soe Brothers Guesthouse met us at the jetty and provided free transport to their place and advice for those looking for immediate onward bus connections. If there's a boat coming from Malawmiyne, Mr Soe will know and can coordinate a Hpa an to Malawmiyne passage on the return journey which will leave around midday/1pm.
Soe Brothers Guesthouse
$12 twin/$14 double/$6 single fan and shared bathroom. They also have 3 rooms with private bathrooms which go for $16
No breakfast but free tea, coffee and drinking water is available all day. The nearby bakery serves puri with potato curry for 500 kyat as well as juices, good coffee and great carrot cake.
Simple wooden, fan cooled rooms, nothing fancy but clean. The shared bathrooms are western style with hot water as well as Asian style with cold water. The place had a good atmosphere with space to sit on the balconies and a sitting room so was easy to meet people. One of the Soe brothers has a tuk tuk and charges 30,000 kyat for a full day tour - we got together a group of 6 and this made it good value. He offers 2 circuits, both taking in Saddar Cave and we opted for one that also took in quite a bit of countryside and rice paddy, Kyauk Kalap pagoda and a few other spots. It's definitely worth getting out to the areas surrounding Hpa an as although it's a very friendly town other than the market there's not a massive amount of interest there.
The guesthouse provides a handy map with all the useful places marked including restaurant options - I found Lucky Restaurant and the one opposite it which seemed popular with tourists a bit over-priced but grungy Lucky is good for a drink as it serves draft beer. I'm really annoyed that I didn't make a note of the name of the best place we ate at but it is also recommended in more recent editions of LP I think (it's the one they mention gives free sweets as dessert!) - it's a bit further to walk (and sometimes closes soon after 9pm so don't plan a late dinner). It's a more local place than the above mentioned ones and is Burmese "buffet" style - just pick your dishes from a wide selection - meat dishes 1,000 kyat and vegetable ones 500 kyat with a huge array of chilli and/or fish based condiments on the table.
Hpa an to Kyaikhto/Kinpun
A pick-up (similar to a Thai songthaew) departed at 7.15am from close to Soe Brothers to Kinpun cost 3,000 kyat (or 5,000 for the front seat) and took 4 hours. Kinpun is the base town for the Golden Rock and from you have two accommodation options - one is to stay in Kinpun and visit the rock as a day which is what most budget travellers do; for this you'll probably want 2 nights in Kinpun to give yourself a full day to explore properly. If you were really pushed for time you could get to Kinpun late morning and head straight up the mountain by truck and come back late afternoon to overnight in Kinpun but there is such an amazing energy at the Golden Rock it would be a shame to rush it. In Kinpun, the most popular backpacker choice seemed to be the Sea Sar Hotel which has a selection of rooms from $8/$12 for a basic single/double to more plusher looking options. The second option to stay in a hotel on the mountain top is, for sure, more expensive but it does mean you are there to see the sun rise along with all the activity that wakes with it as well as an un-rushed sunset and the time to take in the atmosphere at night, as well as see the temple complex lit up in all its Disney-esque glory.
At Kinpun, the pick up trucks depart for the 40 minute ride to the 'middle station' (1,500 kyat per person) from the middle station locals can transfer to another pick up to the top of the mountain; foreigners must walk. It's a 40 minute climb from there to the Golden Rock first along the road and then up steps, passing stalls selling kitsch souvenirs and all kinds of medicines made from various animal and insect parts. It's hot and steep but not massively challenging and if you need to rest there are plenty of places selling drinks and slices of water melon. You can also hire a porter for 5,000 kyat if you're sleeping at the top and don't want to carry anything. Alternatively, get an $8 single room at the See Sar Hotel in Kinpun and leave your kit there.
Just before you reach the Rock, is the entrance ticket and registration office - $6 and passport required. No camera fee for foreigners - only locals (who of course don't pay the $6).
There is something very special about the atmosphere of the Golden Rock and on this, my second time there, I wasn't disappointed. The only disappointing thing from a photography point of view was that there was a small bit of scaffolding (albeit made of bamboo and painted gold to blend in) that wasn't there on my last visit. I'm not sure if it's permanent or not now?
Golden Rock accommodation
$45 double/$38 single including breakfast
Older editions of the Lonely Planet refer to this hotel as being Government owned but this is no longer the case. Although undoubtedly overpriced and one of the worst-value rooms I've stayed in it's the cheapest of the mountain top options and the closest one to the rock itself. Location, location, location! They have Internet and also wifi, both at a pricey 2,000 kyat an hour. The restaurant is also expensive and soulless but down from the hotel, opposite the Mountain Top Hotel, are several cheaper options.
Mountain Top Hotel
$65 standard double/$80 deluxe double
A more upmarket option than the Khaikhto Hotel with an almost Alpine chalet feel to it, but $80?!
Went for a nose at the restaurant and bar which had a nice atmosphere and would be a nicer place to eat if you've cash to burn.
They were prepared to change US dollars at 800 kyat to the $ to a maximum of $20 which is a pretty good rate if you get stuck for cash.
I didn't check rates but the third option for foreigners on the mountain is the Golden Rock Hotel; not such a good location as it's just a short way up from where the truck drops you off. It means you don't have to carry any luggage very far but it's not convenient for multiple visits to the Pagoda as you still have the 40 minute walk from the hotel.
Back down at Kinpun base camp there are numerous bus companies with buses heading to Yangon and Bago and despite what you may be told it shouldn't be necessary to book in advance.
In summary, I would highly recommend this southern circuit – there's not necessarily a lot of major “must-sees” that can be reeled off but the combination of travelling by different modes of transport, accessible countryside and really friendly people in addition to being more off the beaten track made it a highlight.
Great write up Kirsty. What a pity the public boat to Hpa An is no longer running! It took 6 hours rather than 4 but the timing was perfect because it left at midday (no pre-dawn wake up) and arrived in Hpa An just the sun was setting so you got a gorgeous sunset as well as all the lovely scenery en route, plus the opportunity to see villages when they stopped to let the locals off. The public ferry wasn't crowded and was quite comfortable by Myanmar standards, plenty of room and it even had a bar selling beer and snacks! Sounds like the new boat is not an improvement, much more expensive too, but I'm glad you enjoyed your trip anyway.
BTW I took a 3rd class train from Yangon to Mawlamyine and it wasn't too bad. You can always get up to stretch your legs so it's a lot better than some of the buses! (I've only ever traveled 3rd class on trains in Myanmar mind you, so I can't really compare it to 2nd class). The journey is rather long but if I recall right, the earlier trains were a bit faster than the later ones... you can ask which trains are the quicker ones when you buy the ticket.
Thanks SBE! A public boat would definitely have been more fun but things are changing very fast as you know and I can only assume it's a change for the better for the locals who now do the journey in a much quicker time ......
You're right, 3rd/ordinary class isn't so bad - I just chickened out for my first long distance train journey in the country. From what I experienced trains had Upper Class (1st) followed by what is known as First Class (but technically 2nd!?) and then Ordinary (3rd) class and not all trains have all classes. I found there wasn't a whole lot of difference between First class (2nd) and Ordinary (3rd) - First had the same hard inward facing, bench style seats as Ordinary but with the addition of a (fairly thinly) padded leatherette cushion; a bit sweaty and not masses of comfort after a few hours! Upper class was more luxurious by comparison with padded coach-style seating. Still a surprising amount of "local colour" in Upper Class but less fruit and veg than in Ordinary!
Really disappointed that the large ferry between Hpa-an and Mawlamyaing is no longer running. That really was a highlight for me and I was hoping to do it again in 2 years.
Just as a point of reference, when I did the train ride from Yangon to Mawlamyaing in 2003 the cost was U$20, and there was no other option for the foreigner than First Class. The station was completely deserted when I arrived at around 6:45, there were no signs to say which train to get on, and nobody around to ask. Some kind soul eventually came along and put me on the right train. My friend and I were the only foreigners on it.
The rain rocked from side to side severely whenever it approached 30 km/hr and made for some crazy, very nervous moments. Vendors with baskets of fried fish, deep-fried quails, curries, eggs, and rice on their heads got on near Bago and roamed the aisles without, by some supernatural feat, dropping anything as the train swayed.
The train stopped in Mottama and we had to cross the water by either ferry or longtail boat to Mawlamyaing. The ferry charged foreigners U$1, but the longtailed boats charged 100 Kyat. Opted for longtail. What a ride, and mostly in the dark!!! Mawlamyaing looked incredible at night from the water. I'm guessing that the train goes straight across the new bridge now?
We had the massive room in Breeze Guest House with the huge balcony that faced the river. Basically, it was about half of the home's second floor. It was U$6 with breakfast included and served on the balcony. Full-on colonial living! U. Maung, the owner, took us out for dinner one night. Apparently, he took all of his guests out for dinner. Dinner was like a lesson in Bamar food, and he was happy to answer any and all questions we had. Great guy.
Like SBE's ferry ride to Hpa-an from Mawlamyaing, the ferry left Mawlamyaing from jetty #15 right in front of Breeze Guest House at noon and arrived just as the sun was setting at around 5:00. U$2. Two stops along the way ... Kawthamalein and Htong Aing.
Pick-up to Kinpun was 500 Kyat for a front seat and required a change of pick-ups just outside Kyaitiyo. Sea Sar was where I stayed for $4. Two big beds, satellite TV, and the owner (Etienne) arranged for my bus back to Yangon (600 Kyat) with pick-up near the guest house.
Thanks for the update Kirsty.
Yes Tilapia, things are surely changing fast. It seems the only thing that is cheaper than they were a year or so ago is the trains!! That $6 room you had at Breezes is now $25 ........ It is sad that more and more of the public ferry routes seem to be becoming discontinued as a bit part of the enjoyment of those journeys is the local activity and stopping at villages along the way.
The train does go straight across the new bridge now (albeit at a bit of a crawl) - the sun was setting across the river and town as we crossed. Just stunning.